Larry Majors saunters toward Hardee-McGee Field—the oldest on-campus football stadium in the South—from the brick house his family has owned for nearly 50 years, the one so close that a rusty tackling sled practically sits in the front yard. He passes a flagpole behind the east end zone that stands in tribute to great football teams that called this facility home, like the undefeated 1963 squad on which he rushed for seven yards per carry and co-captained. Curling around the red track that rings the artificial playing surface, glad-handing with a few trainers and team managers on the way, he settles into the home side's ancient stone bleachers and crosses his chicken legs. At 73, wearing an olive-green thermal shirt and slim, brown work pants, Majors doesn't seem bothered by the Tennessee summer sun or the wall of humidity building around him. The University of the South, familiarly called Sewanee, is practicing in full pads for the first time all season.
Next time you feel like stumping your pals at the bar, ask if they can name the three charter members of the SEC who no longer compete in the NCAA's hegemonic conference. Casual fans might pull Georgia Tech and Tulane, schools that still play big-time football, with varying success, in major Southern cities. It would take a savant of some kind to identify the third: little Sewanee, which joined in 1932 and exited eight ignominious seasons later.
An ambassador and unofficial historian of his Division III alma mater, Majors is a legend around these parts. His father, Shirley, coached the Tigers to 93 wins over 21 years, from 1957 to 1977. His brother Joe lined up at Florida State. Three other Majors boys played up the road at the University of Tennessee: Johnny, two-time SEC player of the year and eventual coaching giant; Bobby, himself an All-American; and Bill. Larry, a 5-foot-8 tailback, stayed close to home. He claims his marks in high school made him a "borderline" candidate for admission, and that the college dean visited his parents and "insisted very strongly" that young Larry apply. "When I came up here in high school and I'd go around campus, it was an eerie feeling," he remembers. "Man, I thought I was in England or up in the Ivy League or something." He logged four years as a player and eight more as a volunteer assistant coach under his dad in the 1970s. A retired school teacher, he now takes in workouts as often as he can, sometimes two or three times a week, to see how well the boys are running their routes.
As the 2014 team loosens up in front of him, Majors tries to articulate what makes the football program at Sewanee so special to him. It's the school's early destruction of its Southern rivals, of course: While they haven't faced a SEC giant since World War II, Sewanee has sent three inductees to the College Football Hall of Fame and still boasts a winning record against the likes of Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, and Georgia. It's the name itself— the University of the South, where pigskin just had to be played, and played with passion. But it's also something more. For Majors, it's the camaraderie forged in isolation, at a non-scholarship school of roughly 1,500 atop the lush Cumberland Plateau, 1,000 feet in the air and miles from anything.
"I think football meant more to us than it did at the big schools because we didn't have to go through the drudgery of being obligated," he says. "There is no obligation here. The motivation is inside."
College football is grappling with a series of crises—financial, moral, existential—that will inevitably transform the sport. How so, nobody can say for sure. It's conceivable, though, that the professionalized, money-drenched version of the game we've come to know could peter out, whether because of public disenchantment, the workings of the legal system, or some as yet unforeseen development. Stripped and scaled down and more than nominally amateur, the sport of the future may well look a lot like it does here, from Majors's lonely vantage point at Hardee-McGee.
Skilled Division I football players, particularly at top programs, produce immense economic value for their educational institutions, and discussions about how these athletes should be protected and compensated have long since moved from the fringe into classrooms, courtrooms, and newsrooms. There's a concurrent trend at the lowest rung of college football that's received far less attention, though: the explosion of Division III participation. Pat Coleman, proprietor of D3football.com, counts over two dozen schools that have added football teams since 1997, at least 10 in the past five seasons alone. Roughly 25,000 young men now play each fall. On tuition-dependent campuses, many of which are struggling to attract male students and alumni donations, the financial rationale for spending scarce money on Saturday afternoon pageantry is clear.
"Schools, more and more, are looking for different ways to meet their enrollment goals," says Dan Dutcher, the NCAA's vice president for Division III.
Why so many young men are suiting up when they lack the talent to earn an athletic scholarship or even the adoration of their peers, much less a future professional contract, is another question entirely.
On the fourth day of Sewanee's summer training camp, the Associated Press releases its preseason top-25 poll. It includes a startling eight teams from the SEC, matching the conference's all-time high. The University of Alabama is ranked second in the country, the fifth straight time they've opened the season in one of the top two slots. Three hours up the highway from their world-beating Tuscaloosa neighbors, the SEC's lost member is just trying to find a space on which to scrimmage.
Homecoming at Sewanee. There was a time, more than a century ago, that the University of the South was the baddest team in college football. Photo courtesy Sewanee/Flickr.
Spend enough time talking football in Sewanee and the Crimson Tide crack —"Well, this ain't Alabama!"—will roll off someone's tongue. "Our budget for 24 sports, a golf course, an equestrian center, and all the staffing that goes along with that is really about 4 percent of what the top SEC schools have," says Mark Webb, the university's athletic director. Majors's siblings competed in premier NCAA stadiums just a few generations ago. Johnny Majors, the Heisman runner-up at Rocky Top in 1956, was only a few inches taller than Larry during their playing days. The gulf that's grown between college football's haves and have-nots is hard for the younger brother to fathom. "I watched their practices," he says. "Our practices were at least as hard or difficult, as strenuous physically as theirs were."
The modern resource gap manifests in various ways. Sewanee's football office—a windowless room with six gray cubicles—is smashed into the basement of the sandstone athletic center, while much of the team's practice gear sits locked behind the bleachers in a primordial wooden shed, one that wouldn't feel out of place in a suburban backyard. And when thunderstorms sweep through, there's no domed practice field in which to seek shelter, a problem that fourth-year head coach Tommy Laurendine is grappling with on this mid-August afternoon.
His 76 players have already taped up and secured their shoulder pads. A few even jogged over to the field to stretch. Tanned and trim with a gray T-shirt tucked into black athletic shorts, Laurendine runs through the rain to corral his wayward pupils before hustling back inside and setting off on a frantic campaign to claim vacant floor space. Soccer is downstairs in the field house, and the women's volleyball team—coached by his wife, Shawna—is using the basketball gym. The members of his staff are splayed out in a stairwell, staring at clipboards or the ceiling overhead, unsure of their next move. When Laurendine finally decides to bump practice back until after dinner, he tells his players to keep their tape on so as not to waste time in the evening. A backup receiver stares at his bound wrists incredulously: "So, I'm supposed to go into the dining hall with this on?"
There was a time, more than a century ago, when the University of the South was the baddest college football team in America. Before boosters and bowl games, when a nearby prep school could supply enough talent to field a competitive roster, few could touch the Tigers from southeastern Tennessee. In his book Southern Fried Football, college football analyst Tony Barnhart stamps Sewanee's 1899 squad as the best team from Dixie in history. At the very least, the Iron Men (as they came to be known) produced a month of action the sport has yet to match.
During those pioneering days, Sewanee—enrollment of 326—had a few built-in advantages. Because mountain roads near campus were impassable in winter, the university's calendar actually ran from spring through fall, which gave football players several extra summer weeks for preseason training. They'd recently hired head coach Billy Suter, a man with ties to the powerful Princeton program. A yellow fever scare, of all things, had cut short their 1898 season, providing extra motivation. Hardee-McGee Field, a student newspaper contributor wrote in 1900, is "where lie victory and glory greater than any king or emperor ever battled for and won."
Team manager Luke Lea made sure of that. At just 20 years of age, Lea set the program's schedule and handled its budget, an athletic director in every way but title. He was ambitious and bullheaded. (It was the same spirit he'd later exhibit as founding publisher of the Nashville Tennessean and as a U.S. senator.) A long road trip, he realized, could simultaneously maximize revenue and raise his school's profile. And so in November 1899, after winning their first four games by a combined 144 points, 21 Tigers weighing an average of 169 pounds set out on a foolhardy mission: to ride 2,500 miles of rails in six days and beat five colleges—Texas, Texas A&M, Tulane, LSU, and Ole Miss—all away from home.
The peculiar details of the trip, many of which are collected in Wendell O. Givens's book Ninety-Nine Iron, are what make it so mythic. Before things even got started, the players' new cleats were left behind at the Sewanee station and had to be rerouted on a second train. At wayside stops, the Tigers would disembark and run dummy plays in empty fields. During their first contest, in Austin, star halfback Diddy Seibels busted his head open and "bled like a hog," per the Austin Daily Statesman, but refused to exit. (They won 12-0.) In Houston the following day, Sewanee earned its 10-0 shutout, the A&M student newspaper noted, "by playing hard, fast, clean, aggressive football." Tulane gave Sewanee no problems 24 hours later, and the bruised men celebrated that 23-0 rout (and their only day off) by attending a play—Rupert of Hentzau, an adaptation of an adventure novel—in New Orleans. From there, the Tigers rolled into Baton Rouge and spanked LSU so badly (34-0) that the bench warmers played significant minutes, and then finished off Ole Miss in Memphis by 12 points. On the seventh day, as locals like to say, Sewanee rested.
The encore was nearly as impressive: a demolition of cupcake Cumberland by 71; a controversial 11-10 victory against Auburn in late November, one that head coach John Heisman would protest in a series of angry newspapers editorials; and a 5-0 downing of North Carolina two days later for the unofficial "Southern championship." Outside of campus, the ludicrous achievement—a 12-0 record with a ghastly 322-10 scoring margin—was barely recognized; the media was too diffuse, and schedules too irregular, for Sewanee to get its due. Classmates made up for the oversight with a rowdy reception upon the Iron Men's return. The Sewanee Purple found them bellowing their trademark cheer ("Down with the heathen and up with the Church") until "they went home, voiceless and content, to consume throat-tablets so as to be in good voice for the next performance."
Sewanee diehards know full well how to situate their antediluvian glory days. "In the early years of football, when we were beating Vandy on occasion and Tennessee regularly, those schools were just getting started, too," Majors says. "It was not a scholarship thing anywhere." Alabama's student body, to cite one example, grew by a factor of 15 between 1901 and 1941, from 396 to nearly 5,000. (It hovers around 30,000 undergraduates today.) Among that expanding batch of collegians were linebackers the University of the South could no longer block and halfbacks its homegrown stars could no longer catch. The window for Sewanee's dominance, in other words, closed quickly.
And yet the shadow of the 1899 team has cast itself over the football program ever since. It's why 12 universities with then-swelling athletic budgets invited a minute Episcopal college to join them as they broke away from the Southern Conference to start a new league. (Overmatched from the start, and forced to play most games on the road, Sewanee never won an SEC contest, dropping all 37 by a aggregate score of 1,163-84.) It's also why the school's understandable decision in 1940 to leave the power conference and stop awarding its small number of athletic scholarships, a move some credit as the first step toward the creation of D-III sports, stung prideful locals so badly. (One survey, taken four years prior, found that 74 percent of students preferred to stay in the conference.) It even explains, in part, why the school continues to field a football team today, despite the Tigers' recent on-field struggles—zero D-III playoff appearances, zero winning seasons since 2000—and mounting evidence of the sport's physical costs. At the University of the South, young men still play football for the love of the game even as that game, in some fundamental ways, refuses to love them back.
Dr. John McCardell, Sewanee's vice-chancellor, remembers vividly the job interview he conducted with Laurendine four years ago. They sat in leather chairs in McCardell's spacious office, a small brass chandelier hanging overhead. "Alone among several candidates for that position," McCardell says now, "when asked 'What do you need to be successful?' he did not begin by saying, 'I need more staff and a bigger budget and more help from admissions.'" Instead, in a Spurrier-like east Tennessee drawl, Laurendine laid out a pragmatic vision inspired by the service academies. Sewanee's athletes—considered small even by D-III standards—would take chances in special teams, fly to the ball on defense, and run the triple option ruthlessly on offense. "I think I told [McCardell] I was an expert in the option," Laurendine jokes now. "I BS'ed with him right there on that one." Majors, who has seen plenty of coaches come and go, is impressed by Laurendine's utilitarian approach and his enthusiasm. Get the most out of what you've got and try your damnedest. It's why he checks up on the team as often as he does.
Recruiting at Sewanee is a numbers game. If the targets were four inches taller or 50 pounds heavier, they probably wouldn't sniff a D-III school. They aren't, so they're here. The athletic department hosted 155 high school seniors for visits this past winter, and 22 freshmen ultimately reported. Webb describes the prototypical Sewanee student-athlete as "countercultural in terms of big-time athletics." This is a clever way to say that Sewanee players must feel comfortable—academically, financially, and socially—at a rigorous and quirky private college. Resting on 13,000 acres of densely wooded trails called the Domain, the University of the South is genteel, literary, and obsessed with tradition. Students adhere to a strict honor code and, on occasion, wear academic gowns to class. It's produced 26 Rhodes Scholars. There are multiple chapels and multiple dorms with rocking chairs installed on the front porch. It's also remote; until recently, cell phone use was actively discouraged, policed even, by students themselves. Nobody could possibly confuse it with a SEC football factory.
Four years ago, senior right tackle Pierce McGrady was set to enroll at Auburn, where his father had played for a couple of seasons, and watch the defending national champions from the cheap seats. Standing 6 feet tall and weighing a shade over 230 pounds, he'd had a good run at his football-crazed public high school, but nothing more. "I had accepted the fact that I was done," he says. The call from Sewanee came as a surprise; the shaggy-haired Alabama native admits that he made the four-hour drive almost entirely for a free T-shirt. His plans soon changed. "I spent the night with a player and the camaraderie, the hospitality of this place was unbelievable," he says. "It was something weird. I felt this feeling that I just had to be here." Now a co-captain, he's finishing up degrees in ecology and biodiversity and hopes to land a slot in graduate school and a job in environmental consulting.
His fellow co-captain, defensive end Oliver Larkin, took a more circuitous path to Sewanee: an hour drive to Boston from his New England prep school, then a flight to Nashville (with layovers in Baltimore and Norfolk, Va.) before a 90-minute jaunt from the airport toward the Domain. Though he'd never stepped foot in Tennessee, Larkin committed less than 12 hours after arriving. The following fall, before the final game of his freshman year, the English major and aspiring writer walked his 195-pound frame into the training room and wondered again what he'd gotten himself into. On the table sat a senior tight end getting fitted with shoulder braces and knee braces and lord knows what else. "They must have used 10 rolls of athletic tape to keep him together," Larkin says.
Offensive lineman Pierce McGrady, above, fell in love with the school during his visit: "The camaraderie, the hospitality of this place was unbelievable." Photo courtesy Sewanee/Flickr.
Football is still football, wherever it's played. It demands a lot of time, energy, concentration, and nerve. During the highly publicized O'Bannon trial this past summer, NCAA president Mark Emmert cited in-house data indicating that D-III football players spend an average of 33 hours per week on their sport. Laurendine is acutely aware of the responsibilities he heaves onto his team's lap; it'd be a professional liability if he wasn't.
"I tell our coaches you have 40 minutes in a position meeting, get their butts out of there. We're going to be on the field for about two hours and 10 minutes and we're out of there," he says. "If you're not winning and you're cutting into their time, they are going to bow out."
The Tigers return 17 starters from last year's roster, which finished the 2013 campaign at 4-6. Depth behind that first line is a concern, as it is most seasons; a college the size of Sewanee can field a proper team only if a full 10 percent of the male student body tosses on a jersey. (A comparable roster at the University of Texas would feature something like 1,800 players.) At practice one mild summer evening, Laurendine grabs a purple pad and lines up where his nose-tackle might, just off the center's left shoulder. The ersatz defender has spent the better part of a half-hour emphasizing ball security and decision-making. The option sets he's implemented aren't especially complex, but players need confidence to make the proper reads and to act decisively when holes open up. On one play, Sewanee's reliable junior fullback Andy Moots takes a handoff and stumbles as he tries to bust up the gut. "You've got to be a heat-seeking missile," Laurendine clamors. "Haul ass!" Quarterback Cody Daniel handles the next snap and picks up his head only to find Laurendine—having juked right before slipping into the backfield—waiting with tackling pad in tow. A helmetless defender in his mid-40s has busted up the entire play by himself. "You're guessing!" he repeats. "You've got to read it!"
The offensive run-through gives way to contact drills, just as a thick layer of fog drifts over Hardee-McGee. Engulfed by verdant trees with birds and crickets producing the only noise around, the setting is palpably retro, romantic even. And it's underneath these lights when the Tigers show real promise. Players are flying up the turf, darting into the backfield, showing off a primal desire for contact. On one sequence, with the offense facing third-and-5, a crossing route gets tipped at the line of scrimmage. Trailing the play, outside linebacker Emmanuel Bell readjust his feet, dips into a deep crouch, and makes an acrobatic shoestring interception. The defense erupts like it's beaten Auburn all over again. The defensive line coach (a former Clemson Tiger) races down the sideline flailing his arms, waving a floppy hat in the air. Larkin can't stop beaming.
In that fleeting moment, the D-III model feels right, like how college football was meant to be played. It's intimate and honest, a living relic of a time before top-flight NCAA football became, along with so many other American institutions, too big to fail. As Webb suggests, "We aren't as much about the entertainment as we are about the experience." Cameras, corporate logos, and shady middlemen are nowhere in sight. When Phillip Fulmer—the former Tennessee frontman currently assisting in the reboot of East Tennessee State's team—recently described the University of the South as "maybe the purest form of football," this unbridled and uncompromised joy is absolutely what he had in mind.
For as long as Sewanee has been a D-III program, it still shares the same modest goals as its newer compatriots. Laurendine would like to instill program continuity: at least 15 seniors in every senior class, upperclassmen who bring to the sidelines institutional knowledge and game-day experience. (In his second season, Sewanee dressed only eight.) He'd love to find more sturdy linemen. He'd love to string together a few winning seasons, too, maybe make a run in the NCAA playoffs. "The D-III level appeals to me," he says. "I like the quality of life, I like the type of kid you get to coach … you don't have to worry much as far as attitudes and egos, all that garbage that comes with scholarship football."
Yet those non-scholarship athletes, even more than their inadequately compensated D-I brethren, are deeply vulnerable: to student debt, to social humiliation, and, most seriously, to potential brain damage. A decade ago, one early study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the concussion rate for D-III players was considerably higher than for their D-I counterparts. Another paper, printed by the same journal this past May, suggests that college football players of all types display detectable changes in their brains after spending only a few years on the field, caused both by formal concussions and the milder, sub-concussive contact that's imperceptible during play and thus impossible to legislate out of the rulebook.
The Sewanee seniors don't think often about the tolls their unpaid extracurricular activity may levy. To play scared is to play recklessly, and they've elected to play. "I'd be willing to bet that coaches worry about [injuries] more than players do," Laurendine says. In 2013, the athletic department implemented a concussion protocol that one consulting neurologist in Nashville thinks is as comprehensive as any amateur program he's seen. McGrady, the right tackle, finds the promise of time reassuring. "In my mind, I'm guaranteed 10 more games, and after that, I will never be able to step onto the field again. I'll be done," he says before the season. "I have a whole lifetime to heal."
"The D-III level appeals to me," Sewanee head coach Tommy Laurendine says. "I like the quality of life, I like the type of kid you get to coach." Photo courtesy Sewanee/Flickr..
It actually unsettles the upperclassmen more to imagine what life will hold once they make their final blitz or catch their last pass. Senior cornerback De'Nard Ford, a third-team USA College Football preseason All-American selection, confesses during training camp that he'd recently cried thinking about his numbered days at Hardee-McGee. He and his teammates love the excuse to hit something and feel immortal when they do. Practices keep them in shape. Laurendine is a player's coach, a positive presence more interested in cracking wise than cracking down. The tactical schemes are puzzles to be solved, riddles to unravel. Larkin claims the emotion and discipline required between the hash marks "bleeds over into everything else that I do." People in town straight up laugh when asked if Sewanee—distant but direct descendants of the Iron Men—would ever consider canceling their brutal, seductive, and profoundly ingrained pastime. "It's football, man!" McGrady says, a smile engulfing his face. "It's like the best sport ever."
Two and a half weeks later, at the season opener, the Tigers' commitment is being tested. Sewanee's 120th team has traveled 400 miles north to DePauw University and inauspiciously parked its charter buses beside an old cemetery. Central Indiana is blanketed in low clouds and spotty drizzle. Roughly 75 Sewanee parents and friends—donning purple polo shirts and gold ponchos—have also made the journey. They stand at attention for an orchestral recording of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which DePauw's public-address announcer projects over the stadium's loudspeaker minutes before the players even exit their pocket-sized locker rooms.
Pivotal miscues pile up early and often. The Tigers' first drive ends in a telegraphed interception. Tied at seven halfway through the second quarter, on a third-down play deep in Sewanee territory, the Tigers commit a glaring lapse in defensive communication that allows a DePauw receiver to float casually into the corner of the end zone for a wide-open score, giving the hosts a seven-point cushion. They pick up a field goal late in the first half after Sewanee's fullback, Andy Moots, coughs up a fumble on his own 38-yard line, drawing frustrated glares from the short and sweaty offensive linemen fighting ahead of him in the trenches. DePauw receives the opening kick of the second half and wastes no time tacking on another touchdown, this time on a read option that baffles Sewanee's front seven and frees up quarterback Matt Hunt to prance in from 61 yards. Trailing by 24 points with 20 minutes to play, heads start to hang. Laurendine can offer only charitable encouragement: "Keep playing, keep playing. Let's go!"
To their credit, they do. On their last drive of the third quarter, the offense is crisp and urgent. Moots munches up eight before Daniel—a short and quick signal caller who can put some zip on his throws when he steps up in the pocket—connects with slotback Powers Spencer for a 44-yard completion down the sideline. A 22-yard screen pass moves Sewanee within striking distance, and Daniel finishes off the Tigers' march by leaping over the DePauw line and onto the black paint below. They've scooted 80 yards on seven plays in just over three minutes; the momentum feels like it might finally shift, at least a little bit, in Sewanee's direction.
Daniel, though, is exhausted. The 185-pound junior has already carried the ball 18 times for 76 yards and thrown for 149 more. As he pulls his teammates into the huddle for a two-point conversion attempt, he bends at the waist, rests his hands on his knees, and vomits violently, right through the facemask of his purple helmet. DePauw's defensive unit lets out a chorus of disgusted groans. In a dehydrated haze, Daniel wanders to the sideline and is quickly replaced by his backup, a true freshman, who, on the first snap of his collegiate career, misfires on the bootleg pass Laurendine had already drawn up. While the special teamers run into their kickoff formations, the back judge turns to the referee and admits that he didn't see Daniel's post-play accident. "I'm glad I missed it," the referee responds, shaking his head and chuckling under his breath.
Laurendine doesn't alter his conservative offensive strategy even in garbage time, down 18, sacrificing any chance of an improbable run-and-gun comeback for opportunities to execute under pressure and at game speed. With 68 ticks left on the clock, lanky freshman receiver Steven Hearn sets up on the right flank. This summer, Hearn forced his way into the starting 11 by displaying soft hands and big-play ability, and he snagged Sewanee's opening score on a gorgeous skinny post. (One assistant coach has taken to calling him "Steve Tasker.") On fourth-and-6 from the DePauw 17, Hearn shimmies past his defender and lays out under a soft fade route, arms and legs fully extended, fingers latching onto the ball.
From Sewanee's bench on the far side, it looks as if Hearn has hauled in a Heisman-level catch, and his weary teammates erupt with appropriate glee, stomping their feet and slapping asses. But as Hearn careens off the turf, the football squirts out of his grasp directly in front of the back judge. The reception is waved off, the touchdown wiped off the board. The bench moves from exuberance to confusion to anger. Finally, they land on resignation. It's a non-conference loss, for starters, and the school's first Southern Athletic Association championship is the ambitious season goal. (As of publication time, they've won just two and lost seven.) "Last year means just as much as next year. Neither of them are the focus," Larkin had said earlier in the week. "It's all about what's right in front of you."
What's right in front of the Tigers now is a long, damp ride back to the University of the South. Once home, they'll pass pictures of their football forefathers in the athletic center hallways and hear tales of those ancient triumphs retold. They'll go to difficult classes and dress formals and that funky bar Shenanigans down the road from campus. They'll get back on the field and try to wring out a little pleasure from another tough season, sacrificing their time and their bodies in the process. They will leave the experience changed, for better and worse, even if Larry Majors is the only reliable witness.
On this Saturday, there's no charter jet waiting for them, no tasty buffet to consume. Some stray bags of potato chips and bottles of water are scattered in a luggage compartment underneath one of the buses, the only noticeable sign of nourishment available. This ain't Alabama.
Adam Doster is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work about sports and sporting culture has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, The Classical, and the New York Times, among other publications.